William Dalrymple wisely ponders the future of travel writing in the weekend’s Guardian. I’ve never been any good at it myself.

The question remains: does travel writing have a future? The tales of Marco Polo, or the explorations of “Bokhara Burnes” may have contained valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere, but is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe?

Certainly, the sort of attitudes to “abroad” that characterised the writers of the 1930s, and which had a strange afterlife in the curmudgeonly prose of Theroux and his imitators, now appears dated and racist. Indeed, the globalised world has now become so complex that notions of national character and particularity – the essence of so many 20th-century travelogues – is becoming increasingly untenable, and even distasteful. So has the concept of the western observer coolly assessing eastern cultures with the detachment of a Victorian butterfly collector, dispassionately pinning his captives to the pages of his album. In an age when east to west migrations are so much more common than those from west to east, the “funny foreigners” who were once regarded as such amusing material by travel writers are now writing some of the best travel pieces themselves. Even just to take a few of those with roots in India – Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Pankaj Mishra – is to list many of the most highly regarded writers currently at work.

This new global ferment and complexity has completely changed the game. Iyer was probably the first travel writer to celebrate the confusions of contemporary globalisation as his subject: Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1989, is an extended meditation on this theme. Yet even those of us writing travel books with a backward glance to history have found that globalisation has hopelessly confused both our expectations and our narratives. In the mid-90s, during the research for my book From the Holy Mountain about the monasteries of the Middle East, I remember scouring the refugee camps of the Syrian-Iraq border for a last surviving coven of Nestorian Christians, only to be told at the end of my quest that there was a far bigger community resident less than a mile from my west London home, and that the last Nestorian patriarch was enthroned in a church in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century,” I wrote in my diary that night. “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street.”

Read the whole thing.  It’s worth it.

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